Alicia Izharuddin

Segrave, K.The sexual harassment of women in the workplace, 1600 – 1993 McFarland

‘The Sexual Harassment of Women in the Workplace, 1600 to 1993’ by Kerry Segrave is a strange book. Nearly every chapter contains a battery of entries on sexual harassment not dissimilar to Everyday Sexism. All of the summarised cases of sexual harassment it details are decontextualised, unanalysed, and listed one after another in no logical order. One then begins to wonder what the point of such a book that pretends to be academic literature.

The plausible reason for the book’s lack of analysis and non-feminist perspective on what is one of the most important issues relating to gender in the public sphere may lie in the area of expertise of the author, if one can employ the term expertise very loosely. Kerry Segrave is a cultural historian who is the author of other books on subjects as disparate as drive-in theaters, lie detectors, jukeboxes, smoking, shoplifting, and ticket-scalping. Sexual harassment and gender are given an uncritical geek-like treatment and reduced to simply an item in a long list of other ‘stuff’ that Segrave has written about.

The first half of the book is segmented into chapters that focus on a kind of employment, waged or otherwise, from the 1600s to the early 1990s. The professions, ordered in progressing income and status, range from slaves (Chapter 2), domestic servants (Chapter 3), industrial workers (Chapter 4 and 5), blue-collar workers (Chapter 7), clerical workers (Chapter 8), serving and nurturing roles (Chapter 9), women in military service (Chapter 10), to ‘professional’ women (Chapter 11). What Segrave suggests is that sexual harassment occurs in all types and levels of employment.

Following a dizzying stream of instances of sexual harassment, jumping from one continent and historical period to another in the introduction, the reader is denied any reprieve from muddled content in the ensuing chapters. Of the book’s fourteen chapters, only three – on strikes, surveys, and legal myths and realities – are not centred on professions and highly condensed cases of sexual harassment. All of this makes reading the book a very tedious endeavour.

What is also strange about Segrave’s book is that he does not make it a point to define what sexual harassment is. ‘Sexual harassment’ first came into use in the 1970s when a group of women in the US decided to leave their jobs after unwelcome sexual advances from their employer and male co-workers. They sought unemployment compensation to varying success. Later in 1991, sexual harassment was thrust into the national limelight in the US when Anita Hill, a supervisor at the US Department of Education, took Supreme Court justice Clarence Hill to court for unwelcome sexual remarks. Hill’s case was groundbreaking not only because it made sexual harassment a national concern but because it provoked important discussions on race, class, and sexuality in the US.

In Segrave’s book, women are victims of sexual harassment with little to no recourse for justice and healing. Men are heinous perpetrators. Perhaps no thanks to Segrave’s lack of feminist perspective on what is a serious feminist issue, he employs inappropriate terms to describe women (he calls them ‘females’) and acts of sexualised crimes (there is no distinction between harassment, assault, and rape). This is not to say that sexual harassment exists in isolation from a continuum of violence and rape culture. But rather, Segrave describes assault and rape as examples of sexual harassment that has taken an uglier turn for the women involved. Even worse, rape is interchangeable with ‘forced’ and ‘coerced’ sex in Segrave’s book. Such conflations weaken his arguments about sexual harassment, backfired by Segrave’s failure to properly define the subject of his book.

The incidents of sexual harassment in the workplace in Segrave’s book are focused more heavily on North America and a few west European countries. Segrave does not however suggest that sexual harassment in the workplace happens more pervasively or better documented in North America and Western Europe. He asserts that it occurs in every country in the world although these other countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America get a brief token mention in a small paragraph each.

From the outset and throughout the book, Segrave makes the argument that different work environments, from the mines, the mill, and the military, made women vulnerable to sexual harassment because holding down such jobs implied that they were somehow “promiscuous.” Segrave’s analysis is so lightweight and his survey spread out so thinly across time and geographical space he fails to consider more closely the political, religious, and socio-economic underpinnings of female employment that give rise to women’s vulnerability to harassment in the workplace.

As an example of how little analysis Segrave offers his readers is his focus on the rise of female factory workers in 1980s Malaysia. Segrave leaves out the nexus of the economic boom years in 80s Asia, emergence of independence of working class women, and rural to urban migration behind the sexual harassment of female factory workers. Migrating from villages to the urbanised centres of the country in unprecedented numbers, Malaysian female factory workers were labelled “loose” women and accused of moonlighting as sex workers by the national media.

There is also the religious context that Segrave omits from this story. Many working-class women did not wear the Islamic headscarf while university-educated middle-class Muslim women were in increasing numbers during the period. The headscarf as a symbol of female modesty was beginning to take root in 1980s Malaysia. Here, the demonisation of female sexuality that encouraged sexual harassment had a religious and class-based dimension. In this example and elsewhere in his book, Segrave considers women as a monolithic bloc, not only as victims of sexual harassment but also whose experiences are not shaped by their national, religious, ethnic, and class-based background.

Segrave’s book does not really belong to the academic reading list on sexual harassment, gender and employment and in the public sphere. At best, it serves as a kind of repository of facts that are not actually organised in an explicitly logical way. At worst, it is a poor example of a book that pretends to contribute to the discourse of sexual harassment in the work place. With the contemporary problem of the gender wage gap, safety and accountability in employment, a clearer definition of sexual harassment that is responsive to the shifting continuum of power, privilege, and violence is more important than ever.

ProfileAlicia Izharuddin is a PhD candidate in Gender Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. where she specialises in gender and religion in Indonesian visual culture. Her other research interests include feminist activist movements in Southeast Asia and decolonising feminist and queer theory